There are moments that define the struggle for civil rights.
One is Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of a bus. Another is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s history-changing “I Have A Dream” speech.
A third moment comes from a work of fiction, but it remains profound and authentic. In the 1974 movie “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” the title character, a 110-year-old former slave, defies segregation laws and drinks from a water fountain with the sign “whites only.”
Cicely Tyson portrayed Miss Jane Pitman with a sense of dignity, grace and courage — all qualities that the award-winning actress had in her own life.
Ms. Tyson died Thursday. She was 96.
She leaves a legacy of parts that spoke to the struggle for equality, such as her portrayal of Binta, Kunta Kinte’s mother, in the 1977 ABC miniseries “Roots.” She received an Emmy nomination for the role.
LeVar Burton, the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” actor who played young Kunta Kinte, praised Ms. Tyson.
“She was quite simply one of the most beautiful and talented women of her generation,” Mr. Burton wrote in an article in Variety. “Elegance, style and natural grace oozed effortlessly from every pore of her being, but the word that describes her best in my mind is, regal. She was royalty with a capital ‘R.’”
Her fans included former President Barack Obama, who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
Ms. Tyson was born Dec. 19, 1924, in Harlem, the daughter of
Fredericka (Huggins) Tyson, a domestic worker, and William Augustine Tyson, who, among other occupations, was a painter and carpenter.
Ms. Tyson was discovered by an Ebony magazine photographer, and that launched her successful career as a fashion model. Her first acting part came on the small screen: NBC’s “Frontiers of Faith” in 1951. Five years later, she got her first movie part in “Carib Gold.” Her first stage role came in 1958 with “Dark of the Moon” at the Harlem YMCA.
Ms. Tyson joined a cast with several stars for French playwright Jean’s Genet’s “The Blacks.” Other actors varied from Maya Angelou to James Earl Jones and Louis Gossett Jr.
In 1963, Ms. Tyson was the only black actor who was the regular member of a network TV series at the time. She portrayed Jane Foster, the secretary to a social worker, played by George C. Scott, in CBS’ “East Side/West Side.”
As starring roles finally went to black women in the early 1970s, Ms. Tyson became more famous. She got an Oscar nomination for her role as Rebecca Morgan in “Sounder,” set in the Depression. Ms. Tyson played the devoted wife of a sharecropper jailed for stealing a piece of meat to feed his family.
Her love for acting lasted a lifetime.
In 2013, at age 88, Ms. Tyson won the Tony for best leading actress in a play for the revival of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.”
She also played Constantine Jefferson in an award-winning 2016 movie about confronting bigotry in the South: “The Help.”
And since 2014, she had the recurring role of Ophelia Harkness on ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder.” She continued to impress everyone; she received no fewer than five Emmy nominations for that one role.
In a post on Instagram, Viola Davis, who starred in both “The Help” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” praised Ms. Tyson for inspiring black women. “You gave me permission to dream … because it was only in my dreams that I could see the possibilities in myself.”
Ms. Davis wrote that she felt devastated with the loss of Ms. Tyson. “I loved you so much!! You were everything to me.”
Ms. Tyson shared her thoughts with the world right up to the final week of her life. This week, her memoir, “Just As I Am” (HarperCollins), was released, and Ms. Tyson was promoting it with TV interviews.
Nearly until her last moment, she had something profound to say, and she said it all with grace, dignity and courage.